Friday, March 24th, 2023
News Review Magazine

Embracing Diversity

by Jon Rutter 

Mikel Houston and Sam Brown
Mikel Houston and Sam Brown

Leaving freshman English that hot August day in 2013, Samuel Brown felt tense.

The semester was rolling. Brown had long since won scholarships and lugged his stuff into Harbold Hall dorm. But suddenly he wasn’t sure he belonged.

He was an 18-year-old black student from Coatesville, the first-ever college student in his family. He’d chosen “predominantly white” Millersville University over other schools. But he soon realized he hardly knew a soul.

“I was torn down the middle about whether I wanted to be here or not,” he says. “I went back to the dorm and made a phone call,” talking hours with a mentor back home.

Brown is acutely aware of long-ago civil rights struggles that helped propel him—and his school—forward.

“I changed my major that afternoon [from business to communications],” Brown says. He joined the Black Student Union (BSU), which welcomes all races and collaborates with other groups to socialize and promote black culture. And he kept cracking the books.

Today, he’s a junior student ambassador who introduces others to Millersville University. He’s also BSU president and was voted the 2015 Homecoming King.

Brown is acutely aware of long-ago civil rights struggles that helped propel him—and his school—forward.

And he’s keenly following the still-evolving movement.

Half a century after sweeping reforms outlawed discrimination and transformed the nation, racial issues have welled up anew—in police shootings, a “Black Lives Matter” movement and in belated dialogue about yawning class disparities.

The worst conflicts may seem remote from MU, which has long striven to nurture cultural diversity.

But while those contacted for this story praise the efforts of the school, they say it’s still haunted by racism simply because the country is.

“The students come from the world,” and the world is troubled, says Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El, a professor of psychology and longtime force for advancing minority culture at Millersville. “I think the conditions for the everyday African American have not improved.”

Dr. Francine McNairy
Dr. Francine McNairy

That’s the verdict of Dr. Francine G. McNairy, the first black woman to lead a Pennsylvania state university. She says she’s more conscious of that milestone now than when she was president of Millersville, 2003-13. “That’s scary. It’s almost as if I’m seeing history repeat itself.”

But there’s also good news.

Black enrollment at MU is nine percent. Millersville president Dr. John Anderson’s administration is exploring new initiatives to grow student diversity and retention.

And younger people appear to be more tolerant today, says Dr. Melvin Allen ’69, retired associate professor of philosophy and founder of the Black Student Association 48 years ago. “That’s not unimportant.”

In these comparatively enlightened times, McNairy says, she can promise any youth that “if you come to Millersville and meet the faculty halfway, you will be surprised at what you can achieve.”

It was not always so for minorities.

In fact, says professor emeritus of German and historian Dr. Leroy Hopkins ’66, for years after Lancaster County Normal School was founded in 1855, none emerged.

Emanuel Epps was the first black graduate in 1897. But his achievement opened no floodgates. When Hopkins, who is of West African and European descent, entered Millersville State College as a freshman in 1961, he found just two other black students and no faculty of color.

By the mid-1960s, says Paula Jackson ’69, the nation’s seething social ferment was still mostly underground at small, sedate Millersville, where her peers once demonstrated in favor of the Vietnam War. “The students were that conservative,” Jackson muses. And mostly white.

So Jackson, a young, white English major with an activist bent, invited three black city residents to share their stories.

Into a classroom the guys trooped, sporting Afros and dashikis, loose West African tunics. “They were well spoken,” remembers Jackson, who had met the young men drumming in a Lancaster park. And very well received. Students just hadn’t had much exposure to blacks “as classmates and friends.”

But change was coming. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson had signed the watershed Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial and gender discrimination. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired followers with peace talks and nonviolent marches. Then, in the aftermath of his 1968 murder, the country was rocked with race riots in major cities.

It was the same year that the late civil rights leader Julian Bond first spoke at Millersville, paving the way for firebrands like Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis to come to campus.

By that time, Vietnam violence was escalating, and disproportionate numbers of poor whites and poor blacks were being drafted.

After National Guardsmen shot at protesters and killed four Kent State University college students on May 4, 1970, angry youths nationwide went on strike. President William Duncan supported the class cancellations at Millersville.

Cries for peace and social justice had merged, observes Dr. Jack Fischel, a history professor emeritus who joined the faculty in 1965 and launched the Venture Coffee House lectures to air the issues. “You couldn’t be against the war and not support civil rights,” Fischel says. “We drew students.”

Around this time, a lanky Philadelphia basketball player named Mel Allen thought Millersville’s small pool of black students needed a stronger voice. He formed the Black Student Association (now BSU) in spring 1967.

1971 Black Student Association
1971 Black Student Association

He faced sharp backlash, recalls Dr. Richard Frerichs ’64, professor emeritus of educational foundations, with some opponents even arguing for a white student union. But this “very courageous guy,” Allen, persisted.

There were no black professors, and Dr. Raymond Runkle, director of athletics, bravely stepped up as advisor. Runkle’s daughter, Noel Brooks ’70, ’75M, recalls BSA gatherings at her parents’ home in Millersville. “This was the ’60s,” she says, a decade-long renunciation of the status quo. “Everything was exciting.”

Bolstered by white classmates in the new Students for Progressive Action group, the BSA pressed Duncan in 1968 to hire black faculty and improve black enrollment and retention.

After graduation, Allen joined the staff as Millersville’s special assistant for minority affairs. Now officially working to meet the government’s college desegregation mandate, he advocated for “the same issues I had confronted them with as a student.”

English teacher Hazel Jackson and counselor Julia Muldrow were soon hired. Dr. Edgar Thomas was brought in as graduate school dean and to “sort of institutionalize” the new affirmative action initiative, Allen says.

Meanwhile, black enrollment accelerated at Millersville, from 23 full-time students in 1968, to 72 in 1970, to 350 in 1990, to almost 700 black students enrolled in fall 2015. Hispanic/Latino students, who were almost nonexistent on campus 50 years ago, now number 618, and there are 200 students of Asian heritage. In all, minority students comprise 21 percent of Millersville’s almost 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

“In the last 20 years,” Hopkins sums up, “Millersville has taken extraordinary steps to recruit students of color.”

And teachers of color. Though some transplants figured they’d landed on the moon.

“I grew up in chocolate city [Washington, D.C.],” reflects Smith-Wade-El, who in 1983 moved to this whiter, more rural community after teaching for 10 years in Philadelphia. “I think I was in shock being in Lancaster.”

She planned to leave after rental homes she sought were mysteriously leased out from under her.

But she ended up staying. “I didn’t see racism institutionally,” she says. Moreover, Millersville approved her African-American studies program proposal. And it OK’ed year-round programming for cultural events, which had been limited to Black History Month. “The institution was just very flexible.” 

Mel Allen
Mel Allen

It’s since grown more so, says Darlene “Dar” Newman ’84, longtime assistant women’s basketball coach and former MU hoops star.

When she competed in the early 1980s, she says, blacks had few role models or teammates of color. These days, about half of Newman’s players are black. The tone has shifted “big time.”

The civil rights momentum also helped turbocharge the career of retired president Francine McNairy. When the steelworker’s daughter entered the University of Pittsburgh in 1964, she was among only a handful of blacks. She later rose through Clarion and West Chester universities as an administrator, and in 1994 joined Millersville as its provost—her then “dream job.”

President Joe Caputo had helped position the school as a top minority recruiter, says McNairy, who believes he and she made “a great team… At Millersville I did not hear that [pervasive] myth” about diversity and academic excellence cancelling each other out.

When Caputo retired in 2003 after 22 years, McNairy was named as his successor. “I was stunned,” she recalls. Still, says McNairy, who volunteers at a Lancaster city school, “for all the progress that has been made, I’m concerned” that people think the problems are fixed. They’re not.

Dwindling public school money diminishes college prep opportunities and retention. That especially impacts blacks, who, according to the National Poverty Center and other sources, suffer three times the poverty rate of whites. McNairy worries that “there may be more separation between the haves and have-nots than existed in the 1960s.”

Money is a sure roadblock for many minority scholars, says Mikel Houston, NAACP student chapter president at MU.

“In the last 20 years,” Hopkins sums up, “Millersville has taken extraordinary steps to recruit students of color.”

Racial divisions linger on campus, he adds. “You kind of see the whites hanging with the whites and the blacks hanging with the blacks.”

People will always be disparate even if they’re friends or allies, Houston reasons. “I think that’s the beauty of life. It’s a gift and a curse.”

That was the case for Florenz Webbe Maxwell ’72.

When she attended Millersville as a student in the mid-1950s, Webbe Maxwell says dark-skinned blacks were blatantly discriminated against.

Webbe Maxwell, who gives her age as “over 21 and under 100,” was one of about five black students then. She could earn only Ds and Fs from her advisor, she recalls. “Any Negro who gets a D should be satisfied,” she was told, “because that’s equivalent to a white student’s A.”

Ironically, adds Webbe Maxwell, a Bermuda native who worked her way through college, she won an extracurricular writing contest her advisor helped judge.

At one point, she relates that a professor gazed at her and declared, “The best-looking people of color are Indian.”

Webbe Maxwell says, “I looked straight back at him because I thought he was stupid.”

CommencementA “wonderful” exception to all this was Dr. Louis Jennings. Webbe Maxwell remembers the late English professor as “very different” from the other teachers in class and “sympathetic toward my being there.”

The slurs only stung her; however, she couldn’t overcome bad grades or convince the administration to let her switch advisors. Also plagued by allergies, she went home to Bermuda well shy of completing her degree, but vowed to return.

She did just that in the 1970s to study library media. Joining her this time were her husband, the late Dr. Clifford Maxwell, and their sons, Alphonso Maxwell, now a medical doctor in Bermuda, and Dr. Clarence Maxwell, now an assistant professor of history at Millersville.

The civil rights movement had altered everything.

Millersville was “almost like a different school,” recalls Webbe Maxwell, who with her husband had also battled segregation in Bermuda. “The first [time] was hell, the second was heaven.” She enjoyed warm, long-term friendships with her 1970s Millersville teachers, mentors and friends.

A librarian, journalist and storyteller, she recently wrote the historical novel Girlcott. Webbe Maxwell earned a diploma from the London School of Journalism and a master’s degree in library science from Atlanta University. She has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including being named a member of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth for library service to youth and the community.

“So Millersville redeemed itself,” Webbe Maxwell concludes, but “subliminally, there are still racial problems all over the world” and concurrent struggles to repair self-esteem.

Florenz Webbe Maxwell, Library Association of Bermuda’s Excellence in Service Award
Florenz Webbe Maxwell (left) was the first recipient of the Library Association of Bermuda’s Excellence in Service Award. Presenting the award is Minister of Public Information Services Neletha Butterfield. Photo courtesy of the Library Association of Bermuda.

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